Just over 35 years ago, 4th of July weekend moviegoers across America thrilled to the tale of how a huge shark cleared 4th of July weekend beaches faster than a huge oil spill. What they didn't know then is that a movie that would fill a generation with an unrealistic fear of sharks was also changing the culture of movies, less than a decade after they had shifted in a dramatic new direction.
Another film which had its 35th anniversary earlier this year, Shampoo, captured much of what was best about the so-called New Hollywood movement, more realistic, youth-oriented, and anti-establishment. Sexy, funny, candid, incisive, and satirical, Warren Beatty's Shampoo, released in February, was a big hit, too, the fourth biggest of 1975. But nowhere near the scale of Jaws.
The famously insistent John Williams theme for Jaws.
Jaws, directed by a 27-year old Steven Spielberg, marked a pronounced shift change in the culture of movies, from New Hollywood to high-concept blockbuster. Considering that the New Hollywood era had dawned just eight years earlier, with Beatty's Bonnie and Clyde, and that the blockbuster era is still very much with us, it was in hindsight a sudden and dramatic shift.
To consider what caused it, it's important to take a close look at Jaws and Shampoo.
Both movies open with what we expect to be sex scenes. Like Shampoo, which featured two sexy blonds in its advertising, along with Beatty, Jaws also features a sexy blond in its central iconic image. But for a different purpose. When she steals away for a midnight tryst, opting for a swim before sex, she quickly ends up as the late supper of a great white shark.
It's a horrific sequence, heralded by our first hearing of John Williams' instantly recognizable two-note shark theme (in the first of the Williams scores that shot him to the top of the film music heap). I don't know if the notion that people who steal off to have "illicit" sex are doomed was a trope in horror movies before this, but Jaws certainly cemented that horror movie theme. Whereas in Shampoo, people who have sex have, well, fun. Though it certainly doesn't always end well.
Before I watched Jaws again, it had been years since I'd seen the movie. I'd run across it repeatedly on cable, catching snippets of it, usually the action sequences late in the movie.
"Whatever I'd like? Most of all, I'd like to suck his ..."
I'd completely forgotten that the first half of the film plays like a blend of naturalism, Americana, and Hitchcock. It's actually somewhat New Hollywood itself, with a hip young protagonist, overlapping dialogue, some shocking gore, short-sighted greed, and extended conversations.
Yes, extended conversation. Which I've noticed some present day fanboys referring to as "dead space," as one did even in writing recently about Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1987 scifi actioner, Predator.
Needless to say, there's a lot more conversation in Spielberg's 1975 shark flick. By present day action blockbuster movie standards, it's downright talky. But all the talk, and non-action interaction between the characters, makes the stakes much higher.
By getting to know the characters and their concerns, you come to care about the characters and their concerns.
Roy Scheider's Chief Martin Brody, the landlubber ex-New York cop ironically living and working on an island -- the fictional Amity Island is really Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts -- is a family man, still learning how to fit in in the clannish, slightly superior island culture.
Robert Shaw's irascible, eccentric Quint, the shark hunter and ultimately the designated Captain Ahab of the piece, is more a seeming notion than a character. Until he reveals his history and motivation in a long (and quite famous) monologue that might well be cut today.
The original trailer for Jaws.
Richard Dreyfuss's Matt Hooper is the first of his two classic young smartass characters in back to back Spielberg blockbusters, the other being Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Even though this Dreyfuss character is something of a spoiled rich kid, he wins the audience over with humor, smarts, hard work, bravery, and a good heart.
It was a star-making performance, and rightfully so. Dreyfuss is perfect in the movie.
If anything, and this will go against the grain for some, and certainly wasn't my opinion back in the day, Robert Shaw's Quint is more than a bit overripe. As written, and as played by Shaw -- who shows, in comparison to his crisp Soviet assassin who is nearly a match for Sean Connery's Bond in From Russia With Love, that 12 years is ample time to go to seed -- Quint is far too prone to "colorful" sea chanties and eccentric half-witticisms.
If not for Quint's great monologue about the horrendous sinking of the USS Indianapolis -- which Shaw, a novelist himself, reportedly mostly wrote -- he might be a rather irritating character.
As celebrated as Shaw, a very fine actor, became for the role, I wish that Spielberg had gotten his original choice, Lee Marvin, who in real life was a decorated Marine in World War II and did not have to resort to verbal tics and colorful stunts to project an air of menace and incipient instability.
For all Jaws' fame as an action/adventure classic, Spielberg was probably very fortunate that Bruce the mechanical shark, named for his lawyer, didn't work well at all. As a result, he had to hide the shark much of the time, building suspense and creating a sense of horror more from what the shark sees as it moves in, and what happens to its victims after it strikes, than in the awesomeness of the effect.
Carrie Fisher makes her screen debut in Shampoo. Two years later she becomes world famous as Princess Leia in the first post-Jaws summer blockbuster, Star Wars.
In fact, the shark looks pretty fake, even when it does work. But by the time we really see it in more than glimpses, we've bought into the film and are invested in its action.
I remember, not long after the movie came out, driving through an intersection and seeing one of those huge grilles of the cars of that era turning towards me and flashing on the shark from Jaws. It gave me chills. Today we have been so bombarded by spectacular and shocking images as to be nearly inured to such things. But at the time it was unique. And the fact that it plays so well even today is testament to Spielberg's skill. And perhaps the restraint he had to employ due to that malfunctioning mechanical shark.
Now that he's enshrined as the mega-director, it's easy to forget just how young and relatively inexperienced Spielberg was when he shot Jaws in 1974. He was only 27 when he began directing Jaws. Prior to that, his work was almost entirely in television. He directed several episodes of TV shows before doing his first long-form piece, a 90-minute episode of The Name of the Game -- and why is that classic series about a magazine empire not available for purchase today, given everything else that's out there? -- a futuristic dystopia piece called L.A. 2017 before he turned 24. From there he did the highly regarded television movie Duel about a driver terrorized by a huge truck, and a few other TV movies before directing a cult feature film called The Sugarland Express. Then came Jaws.
"You're gonna need a bigger boat."
The star of Sugarland Express was Goldie Hawn, a former go-go dancer/comedienne on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In who'd already nabbed an Oscar for the comedy Cactus Flower.
Hawn was also one of the stars of Shampoo, a film very different from Jaws. This seeming sex comedy of manners is also a seething sociopolitical satire. Set in November 1968, in the few days right before and right after the election of Richard Nixon, it's a film about the end of the '60s.
Like Mad Men today, Shampoo is a period piece, set not quite five years after the end of Mad Men's most recent season, with a similar attention to detail in design and style. (Comparing the two, the difference is rather mind-blowing.)
Beatty, in full control freak mode as producer with final cut and co-screenwriter with Robert Towne (who the year before had another great L.A. period piece picture in Chinatown), for which they won the Writers Guild award, stars as a Beverly Hills hairdresser, a '60s free spirit who takes full advantage of his access to buzz from flower to flower. Hawn plays his ostensible girlfriend Jill, a rather ditzy model in baby doll minidresses whose best friend Jackie is played by Julie Christie, a slightly older beauty who's become the mistress of Lester, the shady uber-rich businessman and Nixon fundraiser (who at one point we see in passing divvying up offshore oil leases in the year before the Santa Barbara oil spill) played by the always good, late and lamented Jack Warden.
Who thinks it's a nifty idea to have Beatty's hairdresser character, George, whom he fatefully assumes to be gay, escort Jackie to his election night soiree at the Bistro, the better for Lester to ogle her while pretending to tend to his wife Felicia, sharply played by Lee Grant, who won an Oscar for the role.
What the very knowing Lester does not know is that his dissatisfied wife has been spun up by her hairdresser. And that his mistress was George's girlfriend (just as in real life, Julie Christie, Oscar-winner for Darling and icon of the "Swinging London" of the '60s, was Beatty's longtime love).
George and Lester discuss his potential beauty shop.
Bookended by the Beach Boys' paean to idealistic pleasure, Wouldn't It Be Nice?, not only Lester, but all the principals learn a lot about themselves over the course of the very eventful period from November 4th to November 6th, 1968.
The characters register but mostly pay little heed to the chronic snippets of TV newscasts showing the native Californian Nixon's impending election, and the impending shift of America from liberal to conservative.
So intent are most of the characters on their pleasures that they don't see that the liberal culture that gave rise to them is on the verge of shriveling and passing away. Only Lester, the Republican businessman and fundraiser who's acquired Jackie's affections is fully plugged in to the coming shift change. He has his doubts about Nixon, but in the end he's going to make a lot of money.
Too late, Beatty's George snaps out of his haze of pleasure to discover what, and who, he really wants, only to watch it slowly and inexorably disappear in the distance.
Shampoo, accented with well-chosen, aptly placed rock and pop music -- including the Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and a few helpings from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper -- is a work of sharp social criticism as well as entertainment. Pretty much everyone in the movie is skewered, not the least of them Beatty's own protagonist, another of the cocky, not nearly so bright as he thinks schmucks Beatty liked to play on occasion.
Ironically, Shampoo was shot in 1974, as the Nixon era whose ascendancy it mirrored was on the verge of shattering in the crucible of Watergate. It was released in February 1975, barely two months before the fall of Saigon marked the definitive end to the Vietnam War.
Quint recounts the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis.
Perhaps Vietnam helps explain why the New Hollywood era came to give way to the high-concept blockbuster.
Generally speaking, blockbuster movies are upbeat. New Hollywood films are downbeat.
Consider what I think is the greatest of the New Hollywood films, Chinatown, which is also my favorite film. Beatty's Shampoo co-writer Robert Towne wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay for the '30s era L.A. mystery film. With a relatively happy ending. Director Roman Polanski changed it to a tragedy of the sheerest corruption, and it achieved greatness.
The downbeat, the scathing, the candid, the anti-heroic films of the New Hollywood reflected the pessimism of Vietnam. But once Vietnam was actually lost, many looked again for the up ending.
In Chinatown, the heroine is murdered in the end, and no one is punished. In Bonnie and Clyde, Beatty and Faye Dunaway's characters are betrayed and cut to ribbons in a slow motion ballet of death. In Shampoo, the protagonist is left bereft, still standing when the game of musical chairs comes to an end.
But in Jaws, the shark is killed and the heroes survive, paddling off to shore as if in an incipient buddy picture. So too with virtually all the subsequent blockbusters, from Spielberg's friend George Lucas's Star Wars two years later on down the line.
The players gather at the Nixon fundraisers' election night party at the Bistro in Beverly Hills.
Big movies became much more comforting. In the '80s, movies would metaphorically re-fight the Vietnam War, and this time we got to win.
Which is not to say that Jaws, which is a very fine film, so good that it surprised me after having not seen it in its entirety for decades, stopped New Hollywood films from being made.
After all, at the end of 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, based on a Ken Kesey novel and starring New Hollywood icon Jack Nicholson, became a huge hit and the Oscar winner for best picture. But that had already been in the works.
Many challenging, disturbing movies continued to be made. But they were not the fashion they had been in the New Hollywood heyday, and were largely shunted to the side by the blockbuster phenomenon.
Did Spielberg and company know what they were about to do from a cultural standpoint? Perhaps not. From the documentary materials it seems they were happy to actually finish making the movie.
Is it a bad thing that Jaws was made, launching the high-concept blockbuster phenomenon that dominates today?
Of course not. It's an excellent film as well as a crowd-pleaser. It was probably inevitable that America would turn to the upbeat after all the chaos, tumult, and tragedy of the '60s and early '70s.
Jaws brought a new scale of thrill to movies. If blockbusters today were more like Jaws and less like, say, the Transformers pictures, the culture would be less ADD and shallow than it is.